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I gave you everything you ever wanted; wasn’t what you wanted

I gave you everything you ever wanted; wasn’t what you wanted

Too many project managers and product owners want UX until they don’t.

It is standard practise for user–centred projects to kick off with some flavour of “True North” exercise where the project team determines the overall project goals. It is an incredibly valuable exercise as it provides the direction of travel against which all subsequent project activity can be measured and project decisions can be reached.  It allows project leaders to define their equivalent of a faster boat in the famous phrase coined by Ben Hunt–Davis in his pursuit of Olympic Gold in Sydney 2000 “Will it make the boat go faster”?

Once objectives are ascertained and agreed, they provide a focal point, an unambiguous list of non–negotiables which the project team will work to, and which mustn’t be diluted or comprised.  It means too that the question “Will it make [ insert project objectives here ]” becomes a brilliantly simple litmus test for making decisions, particularly design decisions.

When we run these sessions at Fathom, we encourage our clients to share smaller tactical priorities as well as big strategic project goals.  This helps us ensure that the outcomes align not just with C–suite expectations, but also with the needs of the team on the ground who will live with the outcome of the process day–to–day.

While every project is different, common themes emerge regularly across clients and projects.  Here are some examples:

Strategic priorities

  • Increase conversion
  • Push up average order value
  • Increase lifetime value of customer
  • Generate more leads
  • Generate better quality leads
  • Feed the top of a sales funnel
  • Perform better on search engines
  • Measure positively against Google’s web vitals

Tactical priorities

  • Have a workable easy–to–use CMS
  • Quick to download site
  • Easy to navigate on desktop and mobile
  • Support monthly, quarterly and annual marketing campaigns
  • Produce excellent analytical information

Once established these objectives plot the course for everything which follows in the project. They aren’t compromised or diluted under any circumstances. At least, that’s what the theory says.  In theory, practise is the same as theory, but in practise it isn’t.

The declaration of objectives sets a challenge to project teams because achieving the objectives often means having to set personal preferences aside. Not uncommonly, aesthetically attractive or creative design patterns have a negative impact on download speed, or propensity to convert, or likelihood of interaction. The overarching UX truism “obvious always wins” can be tough to swallow if it means you mustn’t include that indulgent graphic or video or menu system, for fear of veering away from True North.  Embracing UX means the project team doesn’t get their own way on all design decisions.  The reason is simple – the design isn’t for them – it is for their shareholders and their users who are the ultimate kingmakers.

Understandably, this can be a difficult process for people new to the world of UX. Most of us intuitively embrace the simple idea that “he who pays the piper calls the tune”. It’s tough but essential to acknowledge that if you start on a UX journey you can’t and mustn’t always get what you want. That works if you want to commission a piece of artwork, but not if you want a high performing digital product.

In publishing, the importance of killing your darlings has long been recognised as an essential part of successful writing.  Effective editors quite rightly know that a big part of their job is to remove story elements which slow the novel down or dilute the reader’s interest.  It’s tough getting rid of characters and content which have taken hours and days and weeks to write, but it’s a necessary process for the book to achieve the success the author craves.

No book draft ever got worse as the result of an encounter with an editor.  And no software ever got worse as a result of a measured encounter with a user.

The impact of this is that project teams can either choose their personal preferences or reach their project True North, but not both.  The UX leader needs to continually communicate the importance of this to project teams.  If they don’t vigorously represent the user and bring them into the conversation at every opportunity they might find themselves quoting U2 to their colleagues “I gave you everything you ever wanted; wasn’t what you wanted”.

By Gareth Dunlop

Gareth formed Fathom in 2011 and has been in the business of design performance for over two decades.

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